Right-wing populists seem hellbent on destroying the principles that make the West great – Joyce McMillan
Last week, at the height of the bitter debate over Saturday’s huge London march for a ceasefire in Gaza, the Royal British Legion – the organisation that supports and speaks for all the UK’s military veterans – issued a statement that should perhaps have attracted more attention than it did. In a few short paragraphs, the statement simply defended the right to protest as one of the freedoms for which British troops have fought, and asked that the weekend’s marches and demonstrations should pass off peacefully, without disruption to Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday events.
In a weekend replete with symbolism, it was, of course, a few demonstrators from the political far right, claiming to “defend the Cenotaph”, who came closest, on Saturday, to desecrating the UK’s plain and beautiful national war memorial; but amid all the sound and fury, the Legion’s words came as a salutary reminder of how the voice of reason and decency might sound, and of a time when the idea of British patriotism had not yet been quite so thoroughly hijacked by the political right.
For the great irony of the Trump and Brexit years, in British and US politics, is that the people who now present themselves as the great patriots of the West – those who want to make America or Britain “great again”, who prattle about Empire 2.0, and who despise international law and institutions – are precisely those whose actions are now weakening Western countries internally from day to day, and all but guaranteeing the decline of Western influence and credibility on the global stage.
That process has now reached a visible crisis, in the Western response to the catastrophic conflict in southern Israel and Gaza; where largely right-wing pressure to offer uncritical support to the Netanyahu government has begun to blow back in the faces of Western leaders who seem to have underestimated both the diversity of opinion in their own societies, and the extent to which the Global South has now lost patience with Western powers which so frequently – when it suits them – ignore the principles of international and humanitarian law that they preach to others.
The UK Government, for example, is in the hands of a party whose chairman thinks it clever to talk about simply ignoring the UK Supreme Court’s ruling on the Rwanda asylum scheme; while the Prime Minister shamelessly refers to that venerable international institution, the European Court of Human Rights, as a “foreign court”.
And the situation in the United States is worse, in that 2024 presidential election risks the return to the White House of a politician who claims to defend American values, while taking a sledgehammer to every constitutional principle that ever made the idea of America worth defending. The levels of pseudo-religious irrationality and extremism now prevalent in Trump’s Republican party are terrifying, and increasingly incapacitating to any kind of practical or effective domestic politics; while, on the world stage, the same people promote a delusional isolationism in which it somehow makes sense for the United States to withdraw from Nato, and to remove support from Ukraine in its vital struggle against Russian aggression.
Both at home and abroad, in other words, it is difficult to imagine a more effective recipe for national decline. And meanwhile, in the UK, it becomes ever more clear that 40 almost uninterrupted years of right-wing economics has likewise ushered in an age of decline. The real-terms pay of ordinary British workers has been flatlining since 2009; while the cult of austerity in public spending has hollowed out our communities and cultural life, and impoverished and degraded our public services. And of course, the resentment produced by such hard times also led to the disastrous act of economic and human self-harm that was Brexit.
Yet all of this has come to you courtesy of those most likely to wrap themselves in the flag, and to claim love of their country as their motivation; whereas the truth about their ideology is that it is deeply destructive, fundamentally misconceived, and based on a shameful failure to learn or respect the lessons of recent history. It is, sadly, more than a quarter of a century since the late, great Robin Cook, as Tony Blair’s Foreign Secretary, first announced his proposed “ethical foreign policy”, informed by the basic principles of international law. He was much mocked at the time, notably by crusty old reactionaries who opined that international affairs is all about brute force and “realpolitik”, narrowly defined.
Yet today, as South Africa takes a case against Israel’s actions in Gaza to the International Criminal Court, Ukraine desperately appeals for Western help in upholding the ideas of freedom and democracy against Putin’s bloody dictatorship, and many Israeli citizens and the Palestinian people themselves appeal to those principles for the justice, peace and security they seek, we can surely see that it is not the principles themselves that are at fault, but our own short-sighted failure to defend them with the seriousness they deserve, and which the people of the Global South now increasingly demand.
What the West needs now, in other words, is government that will stand up for the best that our civilisation has produced, rather than the worst; for civility, welfare and social justice at home, and for the principles and institutions enshrined in the UN Charter abroad. At this time of crisis for humankind and the planet, nothing less will do. Donald Trump will not do. Rishi Sunak will not do. And increasingly, centre-left leaders like Keir Starmer and Joe Biden will not do either, unless they can begin to shift their positions away from old, discredited loyalties, towards a new commitment to those values of peace, justice and humanity which we all claim for our own, but which are universal, or they are nothing.
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